asked in 2005,
answered by Elena Zhemkova
1. How do Russian people regard the history of their country and your part in revealing its darkest sides?
The Russian society is divided. One part regards Stalin as one of the most important statesmen of the 20th century. According to the latest surveys these are 25-30 per cent of the population. The same people think that the collapse of the Soviet Union is a huge catastrophe. This is a position that was publicly taken up by President Putin recently. But there is another part of Russia, those who regard Stalin as a criminal und who appreciate the Soviet Union's collapse. It depends on which group a person belongs to - either he supports us or he dismisses what we do.
2. How have your working conditions changed since you started?
Memorial has existed for more than 17 years. On the one hand, we have become a more professional and effective organisation. The public heeds our opinion. On the other hand, especially democratic and constitutional values and ideals are suppressed in Russia. Memorial is said to propagate western values and to look for only the dark spots of our past. Concerning our work for human rights in Chechnya we are called traitors to our fatherland, and of course this has made our work harder in recent years.
3. What kind of people work for and support Memorial?
Basically, Memorial gets support from well-educated people - teachers, doctors and lawyers. Among them are many people who - or whose relatives - experienced the GULAG themselves. Thanks to our six year long work with pupils there are now many pupils and students among our activists.
4. What effect has the Right Livelihood Award had on your work?
In our present difficult situation, the reception of the Right Livelihood Award was again perceived as a confirmation that Memorial is a voice of the West and that we propagate western and thus foreign values in Russia. At the same time, the prize and the associated international attention are a real protection against the oppression and prosecution by the state.
5. What do you do if someone is looking for documents or the grave of his/her repressed father (mother/brother/sister/grandfather etc.)?
We carefully consider each single case, search for documents and graves. Often the search takes several months, sometimes years. We often help and find answers to the people's questions. We now have more than 1,300,000 names of politically prosecuted people in our database.
6. Why does Memorial criticize so often and so hard the Russian government? Maybe Memorial should restrict itself to dealing with the past and not deal with present human rights abuses?
Memorial's activists are convinced that past and future are inseparable. Our history is not the history of the state, but the history of the people. Often this is a history of human rights abuses. Thus, when we work with history, we learn about human rights. And then there will be less human rights abuses today. We have to feel the responsibility for both history and today.
Human Rights and Humanitarian Society
Elena Zhemkova, Executive Director
Irina Sherbakova, Head of Educational Youth Programme 127051 Moscow
Maly Karetny per. 12